That's pretty chilling. In light of stories like that, how do you view the use of these substances?
I'm not sure I have much to add to the debate about that. In the case of Lance Armstrong, I really can't shake the feeling that it's rather a shame that one of the dominant athletes of our time, in a sport that I love, is now only regarded or is mainly regarded as a public curiosity.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had, I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed.
Or a disgrace?
Or a disgrace, worse yet. But the things that I remember are the descriptions of this young man who was coming up, when he was not yet understood as the talent that he proved to be. And you should hear these descriptions. I remember the world championships, this was before Lance was sick—he came out of nowhere and he decimated the field. Just decimated the field, and everybody was rocked on their heels, because where did this guy come from? This is when he was 20 pounds heavier than he was the rest of his career—after cancer he had actually gained an advantage by paring off a good deal of his muscle mass.
But that's the part I don't think is widely appreciated. He is a genetic freak in terms of his gifts. It's just something almost otherworldly.
And that's true even without the drugs, you think?
Yes, no question. I don't think people necessarily understand the constant, extraordinary demands that this sport makes. I mean, you are basically killing yourself every minute that you're out there. And many times what that leads to is a flat tire, or someone gives you an elbow and bumps you off the road in the last corner, and the break goes on without you and you can't do anything about it—over and over again, and you just have to understand that's the way these things unwind, and your day will come—or not.
But back to the question about drugs—you've sort of led me to believe you didn't entirely disapprove of them.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had—that is to say, if I were able to somehow magically find myself in the pro peloton—I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed. Besides, as you know, you're talking to a father who's a vitamin freak.
Right, you believe in better living through chemistry.
Keep in mind that our lives are fundamentally different in part because of the understanding of the human body that modern science has made available to us. A good deal of the technology that's outlawed in sport and the subject of great scorn is the same technology that allows us to save AIDS patients from wasting, that allows us to bring many, many disabilities and disease states back from the brink to something like full functioning. I myself have been taking supplemental testosterone for medical reasons for 15 years, with no ill effects. These things are powerful weapons that mankind has developed for good.
There are some interesting alternative strategies. For instance, there's something called an altitude tent—a hyperbaric chamber. If you sleep with an oxygen content in the air typical of higher altitude, the body's response is to begin to generate more red blood cells. It's everybody's response to altitude, and you can do it just by taking the hours that you sleep and reducing the oxygen content. Not the pressure, just the oxygen content of the air. So many years ago many of the Scandinavian cross-country teams began to train while domiciled in whole houses that had been altered to reproduce this state of affairs.
You don't want to, by the way, just move to Colorado, because it turns out that the full-boogie adaptation to altitude is not particularly favorable, because your blood pH changes in such a way as to make power production decline. The ideal is to sleep at altitude and train at sea level. In fact, our good friend Barb Buchan [a severely brain-damaged Paralympic cycling medalist] bought one of these tents, and it had the effect of dramatically reducing her seizures. Then, when she was at the Olympics, she was not allowed to use it, and she had a seizure right before the race.
In her case, part of what was interesting to me was that that tent really worked. She could pretty much march her hematocrit right up to whatever level she wanted. This is a woman, and women's hematocrit levels are usually far lower than those of a man.
Are there side effects to this kind of doping as there are to things like amphetamines or steroids?
Yes. EPO in particular has been implicated in 20 or 30 or 40 deaths in amateur racing. Red blood cells are enormously bigger than any other cells in the blood, and when you increase them the blood becomes sludgy and the heart has to work much harder. I had a master's student who was genetically disposed to overproduce red blood cells, and he had to give blood from time to time to reduce the load on his heart.
Can you imagine a set of doping rules that would make more sense?